From Bull Moose to Jackass

U.S. Progressivism from 1912 to 2021.

SUMMARY: Today’s episode is a mashup of a Quickie and a full fledged Unf*cking. We start by going back in time to tell the origin story of the Progressive Party colloquially known as the Bull Moose Party. We examine the original party platform and draw a straight line between the issues facing the nation in 1912 that still face us today. Then we follow with a Quickie on three progressive members of the House of Representatives that give us hope for the future.


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Good day, Subf*ckers. Today’s episode is a mashup of a traditional Unf*cking and a Quickie. A veritable orgy of information. Originally it was intended to only be a Quickie, a look at three progressive House members. 

The idea came about from a conversation I had with my buddy Mike, a.k.a. “Mikey Five,” a.k.a. “The Mangler.” Mikey is around my age and we’ve known each other for a long time. He’s super knowledgeable on New York politics, especially the retail hand-to-hand shit. He’s not especially ideological, but he’s very funny and really cynical. Recently, he was lamenting the lack of congressional talent in our area then asked if I thought there was anyone particularly smart in Congress. And not politically savvy or glib. Actual deep thinkers. So when I rattled off a few, he admitted to knowing a couple in passing and to having no idea about the others.

It makes sense. After all, there are 535 members of Congress and they’re always changing. It’s little wonder that even someone like The Mangler who can probably name county chairpeople in New York going back to the 1800s has zero fucks to give about a current house member from Oregon. And truth be told, most house members are somewhere between forgettable figures or over-the-top personalities.  

Like old Hank Johnson, the one responsible for my favorite congressional hearing moment of all time. You know the one where he asks a general if moving a base to one side of Guam might cause it to tip over. Or Butthead Gaetz, MGT and Boebert. Even my beloved, scenery chewing AOC is overplayed and over-covered. While I can’t place 100% confidence in these numbers or methodology of these polls, a couple of surveys I found indicated that only two in five Americans can name their congressperson. That feels about right. 

So today I want to introduce you to three different progressive house members. They might be familiar to you, which is great and if they’re not, that’s fine too. That’s why we’re here. We’ll review why I selected these three in particular but before we get there, I thought it would also be helpful to understand what the hell we even mean when we say “progressive.” 

This works even better to help lay the groundwork for next week’s episode on ISMs in America generally, where we explore the misunderstood landscape of parties, theories and ideologies in America to identify who we actually are and who stands for what. But since we approach this podcast from a so-called progressive perspective, it seemed appropriate to talk about progressivism on its own as a warm up for next week and to dig through history to uncover the roots of the progressive movement. 

Ghostly Echoes

Last week we talked about how you have to look back in order to go forward. I want you to read something Unf*ckers. If you’d like to listen, you can follow this link and close your eyes to hear the whispers of a ghost. I’ve selected a passage below to hear how these words echo still today. 

“We stand for a living wage. Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide a living for those who devote their time and energy to industrial occupations. The monetary equivalent of a living wage varies according to the local conditions, but must include enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living. A standard high enough to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness and to permit a reasonable saving for old age.” 

This is a segment from a recording of Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Recorded in New York by Thomas Edison. The digital file can be found on the Library of Congress website but the preservation master is held in the home of the man who uttered these words at the dawn of the progressive movement in the United States. In fact, they’re drawn from Roosevelt’s stump speeches for his second and non-consecutive bid for the presidency, marking the birth of the Progressive Party in America. 

Many historians consider Teddy Roosevelt’s campaign for a third term to be an act of vanity. That he simply could not stand being on the sidelines as a citizen. (Turns out that running for additional terms is a rather Rooseveltian thing to do.) 

It was before the term limits were amended to the Constitution, and though it was considered the “right thing to do” and a presidential norm - respecting the precedent set by George Washington - Roosevelt interpreted it as his right to be elected to two terms since he had merely inherited his first term due to William McKinley’s assassination. Plus, he believed that his successor, William Howard Taft, simply wasn’t up to the job to stand firm in the face of the industrial giants of the era. 

This period, the Taft years between 1909 and 1912, are pivotal in the history of the progressive movement and warrant our attention because many of our issues today are indeed echoes of history. 

The Bull Moose Legend: Progressive Party Origin

Theodore Roosevelt was a complex individual to put it mildly. His entire existence was a break against convention. A scrawny and sickly child in his youth, he dedicated himself to a rigorous daily exercise routine he would carry out for his entire life. He thrived on being the biggest and loudest person in the room. 

He had an insatiable appetite for knowledge, authored more than 40 books in his lifetime, held multiple offices from New York City Police Commissioner, New York Assemblyman, Assistant Secretary to the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice President of the United States and ultimately President of the United States. A political resume that remains arguably unmatched to this day. It’s said that his own party members would groan whenever he rose to speak in the New York Assembly, which was all the time. In fact, he was such a principled thorn in the side of his own party, that his nomination to Vice President was thought to be the only way to silence him by his own party members. 

His sudden ascension to POTUS came at a time when the United States was just beginning to flex some muscle at the dawn of the 20th Century. Critically for the world and our story today, we were emerging from the initial stages of the Industrial Revolution and gathering economic momentum and political prominence on the world stage. 

Roosevelt was the first sitting president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end to the Russo-Japanese War. He would pit Central American nations against one another and confound nearly everyone, including members of his own administration, by beginning construction on the Panama Canal. He clashed with the great industrial titans of the time as the self proclaimed trust buster in chief. He forged ahead with building the Great White Fleet, a powerful navy to rival that of even Great Britain. And when he couldn’t find a war of his own to fight, he sailed the fleet around the world to send a message that he was ready, willing and able. 

He was perhaps the most ardent lover of the outdoors to ever hold the office and protected more federal land than every other president combined. He forever lost favor with many in the south when he invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him in the White House. Contrast that to Woodrow Wilson who was the first president to ever show a film in the White House. His selection? The Birth of a Nation, the radical white supremacist film that inspired the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Because he served more than a century ago, it’s difficult to put into words how large Roosevelt loomed over the United States and in fact the world. 

Teddy was also an Imperialist Asshole

Full disclosure, Teddy Roosevelt is far and away my favorite president. I have consumed several biographies, made frequent trips to his home on Sagamore Hill and even used to quote from his speech The Man in the Arena, which is more proof of my “basic white guy” credentials.  

But as I grew as a writer and moved past the “men of their times” arguments, I was also able to see his faults more clearly. Roosevelt was an ardent imperialist. His exploits in Cuba were horrific. His treatment of indigenous people was brutal and severe, as was his view of them. All of that land he put aside? Made possible by continuing a policy of forced expulsion of native people, who he considered immoral and inferior. Everything Roosevelt did was big. Even when he was being an asshole. 

He was a man who believed in manifest destiny wholeheartedly. He viewed America as the greatest nation to ever exist and would have appointed himself king for life if possible. His blood thirst and desire for war was so intense that he would badger Woodrow Wilson in person, through letters and emissaries to join the war in Europe as the leader of a volunteer battalion at 58 years old. 

To Roosevelt, there could be no greater capstone to his career than to die on the battlefield. Wilson gleefully reveled in turning Roosevelt down in his private journals, as he disliked him intensely. Ultimately, each of Roosevelt’s sons would be called to duty and his son Quentin would fulfill his father’s destiny by dying in the war. The news was delivered to him by Wilson himself and it would haunt Roosevelt for his few remaining years. 

History Repeating?

History often contains clues that are useful in the present. I wanted to fully understand what was happening at the time of the first progressive wave, who was behind it, what were the factors that contributed to its rise and where did it go off the rails. Are there patterns to spot or lessons to learn? 

The four years between Roosevelt’s second term and Wilson’s first feel similar to where we are. That’s where I think we should start. 

  • The Great War was not yet on the horizon but the United States had spent the prior eight years rapidly militarizing. But at that moment, the country was in peacetime. 

  • Global trade and tariffs were the central issue of this period. More on that in a minute. 

  • The period was marked by slower growth than prior years but growth nonetheless. 

  • There was a market crash. Then a recovery. A housing bubble in Florida. (True story.) Then a recovery. 

  • Laws and institutions still favored the ultra wealthy and labor conditions remained poor. 

  • Mega corporations and trusts began to consolidate wealth and interests and fought to exert massive influence over the markets, public policy and legislation. 

There was a movement toward progressivism reflected in both parties, though Taft proved ineffectual at pushing back on the massive corporate interests of the day. With Roosevelt out of the picture, the titans of finance and industry continued their push back against the forces of labor and regulations. But the break that wound up giving birth to the progressive movement came from a particular piece of regulation and a book called The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly. 

The first major biography on Teddy Roosevelt was written by Henry Pringle in 1931. I like referring to biographies written within a generation of a subject because the language is authentic and the lens more contemporary to the figure. Regarding Croly’s influence, Pringle writes, “Published in November, 1909, The Promise of American Life had a profound effect on the thought of subsequent political commentators. It was peculiarly suited to stimulate Roosevelt, for Croly’s philosophy was, in a sense, an extension of his own.” 

What Croly was extolling was the moral virtue of government as protector, a guardianship relationship with the people of the nation. This was in stark contrast to the libertarian independence strain of the country that characterized the 19th Century. The rugged individualism and frontier spirit that even Roosevelt himself embodied was shifting with the idea that the government could do more for its citizens than just clear land and issue deeds. That it could exist to serve the interests of the people, protect its weakest inhabitants and guarantee the so-called “square deal” of what Roosevelt termed the “New Nationalism.” 

With time on his hands and these words having a profound effect on the former Rough Rider, Roosevelt began seeking opportunities to regain public confidence and re-enter the limelight. While it seems silly today, his moment came when his handpicked successor William Howard Taft caved to corporate lobbying interests and failed to promote progressive tariffs. The Payne Aldrich Tariff Act was seen as a giveaway to the northern industrialists who Teddy had fought so hard to contain. The wealthy of this period fought to keep the most important tariffs in effect because it was helping them essentially create domestic monopolies and discouraged competition. Taft's inability to beat back the corporate interests and further Roosevelt’s agenda was enough to send the former president off the rails and back into the spotlight. 

Roosevelt wasn’t the only national figure seeking the nomination under the Progressive Party banner, mind you. In fact, the leading organizer was a man named Robert La Follette, who has been mostly lost to history, sadly. This is in large part due to Roosevelt’s long shadow. Once he threw his hat back into the ring, he became the leading contender to lead the new party. 

Roosevelt’s New Nationalism was the motto for the newly formed Progressive Party, though most colloquially refer to this party as the Bull Moose Party. This was affectionately named for Roosevelt who was actually shot during a speech and kept going, saying it would take more than a bullet to stop a Bull Moose. So, yeah. He was pretty much a psychopath. 

Progressive Platform of 1912

To see just how much history repeats itself, here are some highlights from the Progressive Party platform of 1912 with my comments on current corollaries.  

  • We pledge our party to legislation that will compel strict limitation of all campaign contributions and expenditures, and detailed publicity of both before as well as after primaries and elections.

You can find this in the stalled H.R. 1 For the People Act today. 

  • Minimum wage standards for working women, to provide a "living wage" in all industrial occupations.

The fight for a livable wage continues today. 

  • The abolition of the convict contract labor system; substituting a system of prison production for governmental consumption only; and the application of prisoners' earnings to the support of their dependent families;

The ongoing battle against contract prison labor and privatization. 

  • The protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance. 

The origin of the discussion around social safety nets. 

  • The development of the creative labor power of America by lifting the last load of illiteracy from American youth and establishing continuation schools for industrial education under public control 

Free public education. 

  • We favor the union of all the existing agencies of the Federal Government dealing with the public health into a single national health service without discrimination.

Single payer health system. 

  • The existing concentration of vast wealth under a corporate system, unguarded and uncontrolled by the Nation, has placed in the hands of a few men enormous, secret, irresponsible power over the daily life of the citizen--a power insufferable in a free Government and certain of abuse.

The battle against the influence of the 1% rages on. 

  • The natural resources of the Nation must be promptly developed and generously used to supply the people's needs, but we cannot safely allow them to be wasted, exploited, monopolized or controlled against the general good.  

Protecting public lands and waterways, responsible development and conservation remains an issue made ever more pressing by the effects of climate change. 

  • We believe in a graduated inheritance tax as a National means of equalizing the obligations of holders of property to Government, and we hereby pledge our party to enact such a Federal law as will tax large inheritances, returning to the States an equitable percentage of all amounts collected.

Republicans have made inheritance tax a third rail issue, though much of the wealth in this country is transferred rather than earned. 

  • We denounce the fatal policy of indifference and neglect which has left our enormous immigrant population to become the prey of chance and cupidity.

Immigration reform. ‘Nuff said.

So that was the birth of the Progressive Party. Those were the guts of the platform, which ring true today. What’s interesting is that Taft’s Republican platform and Wilson’s Democratic platform contained much of the same sentiment and the public was mostly confused. Though Roosevelt won a stunning 27% of the popular vote, he wound up splitting the Republican votes and delivered Wilson a resounding victory. 

The Progressive movement would be shelved upon Roosevelt’s defeat and as the world descended into war. The 1920s would usher in a new wave of 1% madness as the rich widened the gap over the working class. And of course everything would change in the ‘30s with the Great Depression. It would take a complete collapse of the nation to bring about the second attempt at progressive reform, once again by a Roosevelt. But the FDR years are for another day. 

Time for the Quickie

With the roots of the progressive movement and platform under our belts, let's fast forward to modern times and have ourselves a little quickie, shall we?

So we blew over the most progressive era of the nation’s history during the FDR years. But I do promise to come back to them at a later date. There are three basic points behind telling the progressive origin story. One is to demonstrate the similarities between the circumstances and mindset between then and now. Two, to infer that many of the gains that were made during the FDR years have steadily eroded and set the pendulum back to its original state. And, three, to highlight the resurgence of the movement as told by three house members today that signify the movement in new and exciting ways. So let’s meet them. 

Out of 220 House democrats, 95 identify as progressive. That’s, uh, a fucking lot. Of course, not all progressives are the same and some are still Democrats in sheep’s clothing, but still. It’s a major shift to the left within the Democratic Caucus as evidenced by the recent power play over the pairing of the infrastructure and “Build Back Better” bills. 

Pundits on both sides of the aisle were left pretty much stunned over the fact that the progressives, organized by one of our Quickie subjects, outmaneuvered Republicans and centrist Dems by holding the line on pairing these bills. They outwitted Jersey boy Josh Gottheimer, put enormous pressure on their counterparts in the Senate by showing unity and even put Nancy Pelosi in a corner. 

On his show Majority Report, the great Sam Seder referenced the old Harry Reid philosophy that sometimes it’s better to take half a sandwich than to go hungry. And as Seder notes, this time the progressives didn’t take the half sandwich. I don’t think this can be overstated. While as of this recording, I’m not sure what happens next, this moment was huge. 

Not only did they rebuff party leadership in the house, they outfoxed the Problem Solver Caucus members who are led by Gottheimer. As I was putting this together, it occurred to me that this caucus probably deserves its very own Unf*cking. We’ll see. The bottom line is that it’s a bipartisan caucus that is funded by dark money conservative groups on Wall Street. 

So that brings us to Quickie subject number one. Pramila Jayapal. As the American Prospect wrote, “Ultimately, nearly 30 members publicly opposed Pelosi’s de-linking efforts, with Jayapal having close to another 30 in her back pocket. Pelosi delayed the infrastructure vote from Monday to Thursday, and then gave up on Thursday night.”

Pramila Jayapal, a house member from Washington, was the organizing brain behind this progressive stand and has emerged as a formidable member of the progressive squad. Prior to Congress she spent twenty years in global public health with non-profit agencies, received her bachelors from Georgetown and MBA from Northwestern. According to Progressive Punch - which ranks and grades members on progressive issues - Jayapal ranks near the top of all Democratic members, earning her an “A” rating and a near 100% record on votes that matter to progressive causes. 

Jayapal is not just an effective leader and organizer, she’s a thoughtful spokesperson for several causes often speaking from deeply personal experiences. Whether it’s her experience in the “hyphen” as an Indian-American immigrant, or having an abortion when she was younger to honoring her child’s decision to come out as non-binary, Jayapal leads with empathy, votes her conscience and possesses organizing skills that make her an effective legislator and leader of the progressive caucus. And she is, by the way, the leader of the caucus. 

Then there’s Ro Khanna of California who is an indefatigable progressive legislator who regularly appears on both conservative and liberal news outlets, podcasts, the house floor, you name it. Ro Khanna is everywhere and is an extremely thoughtful and intelligent voice for the new left. 

Khanna was born in Pennsylvania but now represents the belly of the tech beast in Silicon Valley. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from - gasp - The University of Chicago with a degree in economics! The real belly of the beast! (#FMF) 

He went on to get his law degree from Yale University, taught economics at Stanford and law at Santa Clara University. Like Jayapal, Khanna’s voting record ranks near the top on progressive issues, with a lifetime record of 98.8%. 

Lastly, there’s my personal favorite of the trio, Ayanna Pressley. Pressley is power and lived experience bundled into one brilliant ball of awesome. Raised by a single mother, Pressley excelled in school in Chicago where she was named most likely to be mayor of Chicago by her classmates. Instead she moved east to pursue a degree from Boston University. She was unable to finish and instead dropped out to care for her mother, but this didn’t dampen her spirit to serve the public. She worked for John Kerry for years, was the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council and ultimately elected to Congress in 2018. 

Like Khanna and Jayapal, Pressley also ranks near the top among her progressive peers with a lifetime rating of 97.3% on progressive votes and a solid “A” rating from Progressive Punch. She currently sits on the important financial services and oversight and reform committees, has vocally supported police and immigration reform, tussled with Republicans at every turn, called Democratic leaders out on the carpet and something else that she says is for all the young women out there seeking to live their truth. 

Known for her Senegal Twist Braid, Pressley publicly revealed that she had alopecia and had lost all of her hair. She made a beautiful and sensitive video and appeared on several news channels to have a conversation with young Black girls about living their truth and demonstrating vulnerability. 

And that’s the thing that I wanted to end with and why I think Pressley is my favorite. Life’s circumstances prevented her from achieving her academic goals and yet she persevered. She let down her guard to live freely and openly because she wanted to demonstrate authenticity to young girls who looked up to her.

And as a trio, they have a powerful story to tell. These are extremely bright people. In an era where it seems that the stupid shall inherit Congress, they stand head and shoulders above the noise. All three lead with extreme empathy, particularly Jayapal and Pressley with their willingness to bring real human issues and vulnerabilities to the floor of the house. By allowing themselves to be seen in such a way, it gives power to all those who are unseen by the mechanisms of power. And all three are persons of color. Scholarly, brilliant, powerful, empathic and brown. 

Wrap it up, Max. 

So here’s an interesting fact. The Progressive Party still exists as a formal party and not just a wing of the Democratic Party. But it’s only registered in Vermont and Oregon. This is something to understand clearly when we talk about backing third parties in the country. Our system makes it really, really difficult to register third parties nationally. In fact, according to Ballotpedia, of the 225 state-level-ballot qualified parties in the United States, only three are recognized in more than 10 states. The Libertarian Party in 35 states, the Green Party in 22 states and the Constitution Party in 15 states. Only the Democratic and Republican parties are listed on the ballot in all fifty states and Washington D.C. 

This is why I cringe when anyone talks about the need for another party. I know it’s tempting but the structural mechanisms and funding required to do this are nearly insurmountable. It’s why I personally advocate for a progressive takeover of the Democratic Party instead. It’s a lot easier to move this ship to the left than it is to attack it with another party. 

Third party advocates, some of whom I admire greatly such as Chris Hedges, are in their right minds in terms of their desire to affect real change from the outside but I find it wholly impractical to continue tilting at this windmill when we can change things from within. And the evidence to support my feelings on this is right in front of us at this very moment. 10 progressives in the ‘90s. 96 today. We can do this but we have to remain focused. 

We should also talk about what it means to be a progressive in today’s parlance. We covered several items in the Bull Moose platform from 1912 that could just as easily be redrafted for today’s purposes. But there are four core principles of the Progressive movement today that help us level set. And they are:

  1. Fighting for economic justice and security for all;

  2. Protecting and preserving our civil rights and civil liberties;

  3. Promoting global peace and security; and

  4. Advancing environmental protection and energy independence.

This is all well and good but where the rubber meets the road is in many of the subjects that we have covered thus far and will cover in the coming years. Such as centralizing areas of our economy that relate to climate justice and building a renewable energy strategy that fits into a nationalized smart and efficient grid system. Undergirding social welfare reforms with bulletproof legislation and funding that can’t be so easily chipped away as it has in the past. Criminalizing offshore tax havens that pierce the corporate veil and place board members and shareholders at risk of running afoul of the law. Doing away with private prisons and reforming the criminal justice system to focus on restorative measures. Passing H.R. 1 For the People to ensure access at the polls and to remove dark money from politics. And so much more. 

I had a great conversation with Jay! from Best of the Left recently about all of this and he made a point that I can’t get out of my head. We were talking about the two party system and he made the point that we’re more parliamentary than we might believe. Essentially, if the Republicans are always trying to caucus with the Libertarians and the Conservatives and Democrats are always trying to appease the Progressives, then we really do have a parliamentary form of sorts. At least in terms of the way we legislate. True that we don’t have a parliamentary system that relies on building allegiances to elect a leader such as in Canada or what we’re witnessing in Germany at the moment, but in terms of the legislative process I believe he’s dead right. 

And we’re seeing this now as progressives hold the line on the pairing of these bills. Regardless of what happens next, this was a huge moment as Sam Seder pointed out. No more half sandwiches for the progressives. They’re a true squad right now and they have the hot hand. How they play it going forward is extremely important, especially given the frailty of the Biden cabinet in my opinion. And Biden himself is no Roosevelt, neither Teddy nor Franklin. He doesn’t have the savvy or will of an LBJ or a Reagan to promote an agenda and manipulate Congress. And he lacks the inspirational quality of an Obama that might galvanize one side of the aisle. 

So change will have to continue from the bottom up, knowing all the while that the Trump wing of the Republican Party is plotting the opposite agenda and working the ground game harder than ever. 

The pendulum is still swinging and has yet to come to rest so there’s work that needs to be done. Hopefully you’re as heartened as I am by the figures we covered today and so many more that we’ll cover in future episodes. The progressive wave is coming in fast and leading with love. 

The future is Brown. The future is Brilliant. The future is now. 

Here endeth the lesson. 


Indian Country Today: Theodore Roosevelt: ‘The Only Good Indians Are the Dead Indians’

Smithsonian Magazine: Why Teddy Roosevelt Tried to Bully His Way Onto the WWI Battlefield

Britannica: Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act

The American Presidency Project: Progressive Party Platform of 1912

Problem Solvers Caucus: Problem Solvers Caucus Unveils "Building Bridges"

The American Prospect: The Progressive Caucus Wields Power

Progressive Punch: Scores

Al Jazeera: When it comes to Islamophobia, we need to name names

Book Love

Henry F. Pringle: Theodore Roosevelt

Herbert Croly: The Promise of American Life: Updated Edition

Pod Love

Majority Report with Sam Seder

Unf*cker Love

Robert McDermott: Jone$town

Help us Unf*ck The Republic one coffee at a time.